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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts stichometry.

'Have you got the scrolls?'

'No, it's just the way I walk.'

Ah, there's nothing like a good old joke - and, yes, all right, that was nothing like a good old joke.

Anyway, the thing is, how do you pay your scribe? By the page? By the line? 

By the line probably seems fairer because otherwise you'd get crafty scribes writing in big letters, or cutting down the size of the pages.

But you're still left with the problem of how long a line is. A scribe's view of the long verse-line called the alexandrine will presumably be: 

Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine

(that alexandrine is from Edmund Spencer's Fairie Queene) 

but the same scribe might fall upon a translated haiku with enthusiasm:

The wren
Earns his living

(the original haiku was by Kobayahsi Issa)

As a matter of fact the length of a standard line was worked out in Ancient Greek times, and the standard unit of line-length seems to have been based on those two long-term best-sellers, the Iliad and Odyssey. This meant a line could easily contain fifteen or more syllables, or about thirty five letters (which is even longer than your average alexandrine).

Poor scribes!

This counting-lines system is called stichometry.

However, stichometry didn't exist entirely to stitch up the scribes. It also served to tell you how long was the manuscript you were buying; to give you some idea where in a manuscript a particular feature was to be found; and to check that the scribes hadn't gone and left out the clue to the first murder.

Later we changed system and began to use page numbers, and later still, with the advent of ebooks, we switched to percentages.

But I'm still left feeling a bit sorry for those poor scribes.

Word To Use Today: stichometry. This word comes from the Greek stikhometria, from stikhos, a row or verse, which is related to steikhein, to walk.

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